Dinner With Saddam, I thought, until its dying moments (and yes, there’s a pun in there somewhere), can’t be accused of not delivering what it claims. Then Saddam Hussein (Steven Berkoff) promptly leaves, having received a tip-off that the Western intelligence agencies have tracked down his current location, such that it becomes Dinner Without Saddam.
The style of humour in Anthony Horowitz’s script is not for everyone, as evidenced by members of the audience in the interval who raved about the first half… and others who make their polite excuses and made their way out on to Southwark Street. The second half is, perhaps inevitably, more morbid than the first, so if it’s genuine comedy you’re after, well, the show’s title would, I think, dissuade all but those with a particularly macabre sense of humour.
The humour is rather warped, but so is the humour of many who have served in the Armed Forces. I suppose when they have come face to face with war, death and destruction, an elongated fart must be hilarious – and a sign of the freedom they can enjoy away from the front line. I can imagine, too, the terror (a deliberate choice of word in this context) a suburban Iraqi family must have felt when they are given just minutes’ notice that their Glorious Leader intends to enjoy dinner at their house. It is the sort of thing the real Saddam liked to do.
It surprised some people in the audience that the show started as a comedy. It loses its way as it goes on, but still holds the audience’s attention. It’s a bit like the psychology behind Christmas cracker jokes: they are deliberately written in such a way that everyone is united in its mediocrity. I doubt very much whether this show was deliberately written badly – indeed, there are a few decent punchlines, including a self-criticising line from the man of the house, Ahmed Alawai (Sanjeev Bhaskar), knocking the acting profession for its pretentiousness. Another one quotes George Galloway’s infamous praise of Saddam, saluting “your courage, your strength, your indefatigability”. This play is bearable and uncomplicated.
I do think, though, that it’s rather pedestrian in places. In the first half, particularly, one could have zoned in and out at leisure without too much narrative being missed. The love between Sayid Al-Madini (Ilan Goodman) and Rana Alawai (Rebecca Grant), Ahmed’s daughter, is – well, Western – Rana is, by arrangement, betrothed to Jammal (a highly convincing Nathan Amzi). The family ties followed by ‘shock and awe’ tactics of the Bush Administration (and, truth be told, the New Labour Government too) meant the love story broadly parallels Romeo and Juliet. There are twists and turns (one of which I thought was too convenient, and lazy) but it boils down to this: if only Sayid wasn’t Shia (the Alawai family is Sunni) – “a rose by any other name”, and so on.
Steven Berkoff’s Saddam is an authoritative figure, the commander in chief who is so highly ranked he does not need to shout his orders – when he raises his voice, it is because he is passionate about his vision for his country, and truly believes he has done the right thing. Sanjeev Bhaskar’s Ahmed is energetic and exhausting to watch (in a good way); I don’t think I’ve seen such wild hysterics and panicked reactions since John Cleese in the lead role in BBC Television’s Fawlty Towers.
It tries too hard to be both a comedy play and a political drama. While I did find myself chortling away on occasion, I can only echo the sentiments of Saddam’s second in command, Colonel Farouk (Ilan Goodman), who remarked that it was not as spicy as he would have liked. Farouk was talking about the dinner. I am talking about the show.
Dinner With Saddam is a tad too safe. It could have been bolder. There are attempts to present Saddam as someone who faces similar domestic problems that any other family man can identify with, immediately followed up by talk of how he dispatched those who were brave (or naïve) enough to voice an opposing viewpoint. Still, the show demonstrates well that the economic sanctions placed on Iraq by the international community affected the general population of Iraq far more than it hindered Saddam and his inner circle. There’s also something quite British about Ahmed’s determination to keep going as normal in the face of aerial bombardment…
Review by Chris Omaweng
Dinner With Saddam
So what happens when Saddam Hussein turns up on your doorstep and announces he is staying for dinner?
Political and personal issues are top of the menu, but behind the kitchen door something else far more sinister is cooking…
This is the world premiere of Anthony Horowitz ’s new comedy. Anthony is a hugely successful and prolific writer. He is the author of over 40 books including the best-selling Alex Rider series, the recent Sherlock Holmes novels, The House of Silk and Moriartyand the forthcoming James Bond novel Trigger Mortis. For TV he has written for Midsomer Murders and also created Foyle’s War.
Listings Information Dinner with Saddam
Venue: Menier Chocolate Factory
Address: 53 Southwark Street, London, SE1 1RU
Press Night: 22 September at 8pm
Dates: 10 September to 14 November, 2015
Times: Tue – Sat 8pm, matinees Sat and Sun 3.30pm
NB No performances on 13, 20 & 27 September
Additional performances on 14 & 21 September